On February 25, 2019, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister since 2013, announced his resignation without any explanation of his motives. In a visit to the Foreign Ministry, Zarif told senior officials the next morning that he hoped his resignation would serve as a warning bell to restore the ministry to its lawful status.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is expected to announce whether he has accepted his resignation.
In a live television broadcast on Iranian television today (February 26, 2019), Rouhani was very critical of Iran’s conservatives. Without reference to Zarif’s resignation, the president expressed Iran’s gratitude to Zarif and his actions to save Iran from the burden of sanctions. “Today, our front line against America is the Foreign Ministry, the Central Bank, and the Oil Ministry,” Rouhani declared. He added that Syrian President Assad’s surprise visit to Iran on February 25 was aimed only at expressing thanks to Iran for its help against Syrian rebels and jihadist groups. “During his comments, Assad explicitly thanked the Foreign Ministry.”
In his Instagram post, Zarif commemorated the birthday of Muhammed’s daughter, Fatima Zahra, and the celebration of Iran’s Mother’s Day and Women’s Day. Zarif then added the following: “I want to express with all my heart my honest apology for not being able to continue to serve (the Iranian people) and for my failures during my service.”1
A Protest for Not Being Invited to a Meeting with Assad?
The Iranian Entekhab newspaper reported that Zarif resigned immediately after he saw pictures of Syrian President Bashir Assad visiting Iran, photographed with President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He was not invited to either of these meetings. In a message to the newspaper’s correspondent, Zarif stated, “After the publication of the pictures of today’s meetings, Zarif has no more credit (honor) with the world as the Iranian foreign minister.”2
During the meeting between the Syrian president and the Supreme Leader of Iran, the pictures issued by the Supreme Leader’s office showed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the al-Qods forces of the Revolutionary Guard, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, who currently serves an adviser on international affairs to the Supreme Leader. The absence of Zarif from these meetings reflects a definite disregard for the Iranian foreign ministry in decision-making in Iran.
Several members of parliament (Majlis) have attempted to prevent Zarif’s resignation and have signed a petition to this effect. Reformist and pragmatic conservative parliament members demanded to know why Zarif was excluded in the meeting with Assad and warned that his departure would harm the state and only bring joy to the nation’s enemies. Ali Najafi Khoshrudi, spokesman for the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, stated, “Legislators are gathering signatures for a letter calling upon Zarif to continue with his tenure.”3 The media has reported that over 150 signatures have been collected (more than half of the members of the Majlis) to prevent Zarif’s resignation.4
Between Europe and the Revolutionary Guard
In the middle of January 2019, the Iranian press reported Foreign Minister Zarif’s intention to resign from his position and Iran’s intention to pull out of the nuclear agreement with the EU powers. The foreign minister who negotiated the Iran deal was the target of growing criticism from the conservative camp and the Revolutionary Guard. The director of President Rouhani’s office Mahmoud Vaezi then tweeted in response that these were “misleading and false” reports that were meant to harm the national interests of Iran and called upon the Iranian media to be alert and prevent such reports especially when the foreign minister was abroad. (Zarif was visiting India at the time.)5
Rumors and reports of Zarif’s resignation also surfaced toward the end of 2018, following an interview he gave with the Khabar website, according to which, “Large-scale money laundering has become a reality in Iran, and many people are exploiting this.” His statements provoked a strong reaction from the conservative camp, and there was even a report that Justice Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei was instructed to rebuke his remarks harshly. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Kassemi supported Zarif and stated that money laundering caused serious damage to the Iranian economy and needed to be dealt with. At the same time, Kassemi denied reports that Zarif intended to resign.
However, it would seem that there is no smoke without fire. The Iranian foreign minister’s presentation of the “smiling, conciliatory face of Iran” in defense of the continuation of Iran’s obligation to the nuclear agreement after the United States’ withdrawal angered many in the conservative camp in Iran and the Revolutionary Guard, who called upon Iran to withdraw from it. The deterioration of the Iranian economy following the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, primarily on the oil sector, inflamed internal disputes further in Iran.
Photo: Zarif with EU3 representatives in Brussels6
Against the backdrop of the worsening economic situation in Iran, tension has increased between the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Rouhani’s office over the responsibility for the continued deterioration and the concessions made as part of the nuclear agreement, which have not led to an improvement in the situation, as well as the rest of the agreement and “obsequiousness toward the West.” When the United States withdrew from the agreement, in Iran the move was seen as proof that the deal was a failure. Zarif, who led the negotiating team on the nuclear issue and subsequently the talks with the European countries to find a mechanism to get around the sanctions, is perceived by the conservatives and the Revolutionary Guard as responsible for the failure. The Rouhani government in which he serves also is responsible.
The resigning Iranian foreign minister has managed to serve over the past few months as a kind of buffer between the Rouhani government and the conservative camp and the Revolutionary Guard. He essentially filled the role played in the past by President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died two years ago and was considered the most vocal critic of the growing negative influence of the Revolutionary Guard on the appropriate direction of the Islamic Revolution and its proper relations with the other countries in the region and in the international arena.
At a Crossroads
Zarif’s resignation (if accepted by the president) may sharpen the internal dispute within Iran even further with regard to keeping to the nuclear agreement. It symbolizes the continuation of a process weakening the status of the executive authority (the Rouhani government) while strengthening the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader’s office (which serves as a kind of shadow government, with former government members in advisory positions). According to the law, the Rouhani government is meant to stay in power until 2021. However, even now, there are calls for the resignation of the government, and it is not clear whether the resignation of Zarif, which is an admission of the failure of the conciliatory policy toward the West and is an attempt to use him as a scapegoat in the crisis that has befallen Iran, will put a stop to this trend.
In this 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iran is now at a crossroads, and Zarif’s resignation is one road sign. Is Iran looking to change its policy in the regional and international arena, as Zarif, who led the conciliatory trend despite difficulties at home, had reportedly hoped? Zarif was very determined in his stance despite the difficulties at home. He faced criticism from the Revolutionary Guard, difficulties in legislating the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which would ease trade with Europe, and the discovery of the involvement of the Iranian intelligence services in the assassination of regime opponents in Europe. Abroad, Zarif faced the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the difficulties in negotiating a mechanism with Europe for getting around the sanctions.
Or is Iran going to take a firmer stance on everything to do with strengthening its power in the region, in the spirit of recent fiery pronouncements by the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and the army. The Iranian military and leaders’ declarations include continuing entrenchment in Syria and Lebanon, promoting missile and nuclear research, increasing aid to Palestinian terrorist organizations, intensifying its involvement in Yemen, and even possibly increasing its attempts to subvert the Gulf states.
This policy could lead to conflict between Iran and the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo already tweeted about Zarif’s announcement, “Either way, he (Zarif) and @HassanRouhani are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia. We know @khamenei_ir makes all final decisions. Our policy is unchanged—the (Iranian) regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”7
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